This day in 1983 was the taping of the Motown 25 TV special. It was a great night, with performances from Stevie Wonder, a reunion for the Supremes, and a rare TV appearance from Marvin Gaye. But it was also an important night, because it was witness to a huge transformation. It was the first time Michael Jackson ever performed the moonwalk. It was the night Michael Jackson became Michael Jackson.
PBS re-aired the special a few weeks back, and I happened to be flipping through the channels when I landed on the performance. It's absolutely incredible but at the same time, impossible to recreate the feeling of seeing it for the first time. But we can imagine it!
The night itself was hugely symbolic for Michael and the Jacksons. It's a progression that begins with Michael reuniting with his brothers for a medley of Jackson 5 hits.
But, clearly Michael is the center of the whole thing, commanding the entire performance. After a few songs, the other Jackson brothers leave, and it's really time to go. I mean GO. In a way, Michael kind of sheds the rest of the family, and goes straight into Billie Jean, blowing the audience's minds with the floor-sliding, gravity defying moonwalk. It's unreal. The audience is flipping shit.
By now, that performance and the concept of the moonwalk as a thing are deeply ingrained in pop culture. It's hard to think of Michael Jackson and not think of the moonwalk (among other things including but not limited to plastic surgery and allegations of pedophilia). But, indulge me for a second, here. Imagine erasing everything you know about Michael Jackson. Imagine seeing that move for the first time. Thriller had just come out a few months before, and the music itself was still very new. The video for "Billie Jean" was out, sure, but it didn't have any moonwalking.
Technically the moonwalk existed, having been invented by tap dancer Bill Bailey in the 50s. But it wasn't popular; it wasn't yet Michael Jackson's moonwalk, which had a life of its own. To see the moonwalk performed on the night of March 25, 1983 was to see an amazing feat, an incredible one-night-only spectacle that has life some three decades later. But go back for a second. Put yourself in that audience. You have no idea what you just saw. You probably don't even have a name for what you just saw. You're sitting there slack-jawed trying to piece it all together. Pre-extreme plastic surgery, pre-scandal, pre-drug problems. Unfortunately, we know what comes next. But suspend disbelief for a second, and you see Michael Jackson in his best form.